13 Feb 2017

What does 'decayed' mean?

Mary Squire's Almshouses

This is the second post in my series reporting my research findings into Mary Squire's Almshouses in Walthamstow, London, formerly in the county of Essex; and Mary Squire herself.

The almshouses plaque in question is this:

The official name is The Squire's Almshouses

So what does 'decayed' mean? And not just decayed on its own, but decayed tradesmen? Or actually their widows.

We can safely say that in this context the word 'decayed' was not used in the modern meaning of "to fall into disrepair or deteriorate", - let alone the other definition relating to rotten food.

A definition from Dictionary.com is closer: "to decline in excellence, prosperity, health, etc.; deteriorate". The Late Middle English source of decay is based on Latin 'decidere': to fall down or to fall off.

The word was quite in use, if not in vogue. For example it was used in context of two other almshouses: those in Putney provided by an Abraham Dawes (d. 1640) for 'twelve poor indigent decayed and decreped almsmen and almswomen', and also for Stepney almshouses built 1695 by the Corporation of Trinity House, on land provided by Captain Henry Mudd, "for 28 decayed Masters of Ships or their widows."  These are from a summary at London Footprints.

A book about the Squire's Almshouses suggests that 'decayed' here is: 'used in the sense of “declined in wealth"' (A.D. Law. 'Walthamstow Village An Account of Church End – the historic centre of Walthamstow'. Walthamstow Historical Society, 1996), but the author does not quote a source.

An older dictionary published in 1845 may be more helpful. It lists the verb 'Decay' as: "to lose excellence; to decline; to impair", and as noun: "decline; gradual failure". Very helpfully it also describes 'Decayedness' as state of decay. The book title is a bit of a mouthful: 'A dictionary of the English language : containing the pronunciation, etymology, and explanation of all words authorized by eminent writers : to which are added, a vocabulary of the roots of English words, and an accented list of Greek, Latin, and Scripture proper names'

If you like you can also look up what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say about the word 'decay', but I didn't find it all that illuminating.

This Thesurus from 1875 suggests (amongst others not shown) a link to 'unhealthy' in its grouping (i.e. unsound, sickly, poorly, infirm, lame, battered... even decrepit):

I feel happy thinking that 'decayed' here means a decline in fortune and perhaps also in health.  It could have been understood as 'destitute'. When I first researched this, I came up with and remembered since: 'fallen on hard times through no fault of their own', but I can now not find the source for this understanding?!  Note to self: I should have made better notes; must jot down sources!

If anyone has an insight and more expert understanding, please let me know!

I do find it fascinating that even though this word was used extensively, it now no longer means what it must have been understood as at the time. It is also intriguing how difficult it is to find out exactly how this word was used up to the end of the 18th century.

Language adapts and changes all the time. It has to because the world around us changes and we use language to make sense of our world and to communicate our understanding to others. No wonder that some words fall out of favour whereas others dip to the surface of widespread public discourse. Fascinating.

If you want to know why I am researching and writing about Mary Squire's Almshouses then take a look at this blog post.

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